Communication and education to mobilise global climate action

Evidence-informed strategies for promoting global climate literacy and action are essential for addressing the climate crisis

Professor Marcia McKenzie, University of Melbourne

Professor Marcia McKenzie

Published 23 November 2023

The climate crisis is well and truly here, with scenes of wildfires, flooding and extreme weather becoming the new norm across the globe. Synonymous with these events is a growing chorus of calls for urgent action.

Yet, as we witness climate change accelerating at an alarming pace, inaction remains a significant concern.

To be truly effective, climate education must centre on the places, communities and stories that matter to people. Picture: Getty Images

At the core of the problem lies inadequate communication and education strategies to build the social and political will for action. Effective communication can inspire climate action, but poor messaging can trigger an overwhelming emotional response that paralyses, rather than motivate.

Government campaigns, policies and national school curricula often focus only on conveying the ‘facts’ of climate science. However, research has shown climate change is more likely to matter to individuals when it is framed in the values, narratives and priorities of the groups to which they belong.

This means, that to be truly effective, climate education must centre on the places, communities and stories that matter to people.

And to measure impact we need effective monitoring, evaluation and reporting mechanisms. These can highlight gaps and increase understanding of how we can successfully educate and communicate with different audiences and communities on climate change.

The Monitoring and Evaluating Climate Communication and Education (MECCE) Project is designed to support governments, policymakers and educators with the tools and data needed to develop higher-quality climate change communication and education tailored to their respective communities and cultures.

The University of Melbourne is a key partner on this project, with UNESCO, the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the Advisory Board.

The project includes a focus on primary and secondary schooling, where we’ve found that engaging students on a psychosocial level can help motivate climate action.

This can be achieved by teaching through experiences and relationships, extending beyond individual learning to show young people ways to contribute to meaningful outcomes for their communities.

The MECCE Project has developed global indicators published on an interactive data platform. Picture: MECCE

This approach allows climate anxiety and denial to be addressed head-on by providing a range of resources and tools for students and schools to become involved and model action on climate change.

This can include having students organise public events, attend or speak at city council meetings, create public art, conduct emission audits of their schools, initiate anti-idling campaigns or work with local Indigenous communities. The MECCE Project case studies provide examples of such action-focused climate communication and education.

The MECCE Project has also developed global indicators published on our interactive data platform, to enable policymakers and others to set benchmarks and targets for increasing the extent of quality climate change communication and education, including in primary and secondary schooling.

Using this data platform, we can see how Australia compares with other countries on climate education and how this relates to a range of other factors, like per capita income levels or greenhouse gas emission levels.

For example, Australia ranks near the bottom on both the climate vulnerability index and the extent of climate content in national primary and secondary education curricula. In contrast, countries like Vietnam and Papua New Guinea score higher on both metrics, suggesting that countries more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change tend to prioritise it more in their national curricula.

Similar findings emerge the greenhouse gas emissions are analysed against national curricula, revealing that higher per capita emitters, like Australia, include less climate change content in their curriculum compared to other countries.

In an in-progress UNESCO study conducted by the MECCE Project, we’ve identified that nearly 70 per cent of year 9 subject curricula across 85 countries lack any content related to climate change.

Data suggests countries more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, like Papua New Guinea, prioritise it in their national curricula. Picture: Getty Images

The small amount of climate content that is included in the curricula tends to have a cognitive focus, like emphasising the facts of climate science or analysing climate-related themes in news reporting.

Across seven Australian states and territories, only five address the psychosocial aspects of climate change in year 9 subject curricula analysed and just four include a focus on climate action.

Recognising the gaps in our curricula and other policies can help us determine what kinds of education governance supports may be helpful to further the focus on climate change in Australian schooling.

For instance, the Victorian Government recently released an Environmental Sustainability Policy for Schools, which was co-developed with MECCE Project researchers and through consultations with key stakeholder groups.

The policy provides guidance for addressing climate change across school activities, offers case studies of local school initiatives and shares a comprehensive set of resources to support policy implementation.

Research in Canada and other regions highlights additional measures that can extend beyond mere ‘teaching and learning’, including modelling climate action through innovative school facility upgrades, engaging in community partnerships on climate action and prioritising climate change mitigation and adaptation in school leadership and governance.

These kinds of efforts are important not only at the school level but also at the regional, state and national education policy levels.

There is a growing chorus calling for urgent action on climate change. Picture: Getty Images

As we approach COP28 at the end of November to assess and advance global progress on the Paris Agreement, having better information and tools to support climate change communication and education is key.

While we have the technological and scientific knowledge to slow climate change, education is central to creating the social and political will to advance urgent climate action worldwide.

Listen to Professor Marcia McKenzie speaking about Empowering the Next Generation: Climate Education in Schools on the Talking Teaching podcast.

Banner: Getty Images

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